Making the Mostert

49ers breakout back Raheem Mostert only seems like he came from nowhere. The real place—New Smyrna Beach, Fla., some 250 miles up the coast from Miami—has everything to do with why he'll be playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday.
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NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. — To find the place where everything begins for Raheem Mostert, take Flagler Avenue all the way east. Go past the pastel-colored tourist shops selling seashells and keep rolling by the retirement crowds lunching on sunny restaurant patios. When you reach the pink gate, turn left to drive onto the beach—speed limit 10 MPH on the sand—and follow the shoreline north until you reach the parked pick-up trucks with surfboards tucked into their beds.

On this day in late January, there are several surfers in hooded wetsuits out enjoying the most consistent break on Florida’s coastline. It wasn’t so long ago that Mostert could be found with them. As a teenager, the 49ers running back sought peace in this rolling surf. Now 27, he grew up on the other side of the bridge, in a neighborhood called the Westside, where he lived mostly in subsidized housing. The Westside is only 3.5 miles from the ocean, but the difference between it and what locals call “beachside” makes it feel much farther. Westside is small run-down buildings and cracked asphalt streets; beachside is private oceanfront resorts and cheery houses with manatee mailboxes and marine life murals painted onto garage doors.

Mostert never had a relationship with his biological father, and his family frequently moved apartments, at least five times in his childhood. No matter what was going on at home, Mostert could always find his balance on a surfboard, so he tried to spend as much time as he could beachside. He didn’t have a car or even his own surfboard, so he’d skateboard or bike out to the beach, and borrow a board from Quiet Flight, a surf shop on Flagler.

“I love the ocean,” Mostert said to one of the largest scrums of reporters at Super Bowl media night. “I love the tranquility. That’s truly what helps me get away from everything.”

(Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports)

(Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports)

Mostert’s four touchdowns and 220-yards in the NFC Championship game made him an overnight sensation, but he had to overcome much more than a difficult childhood to stand on that post-game stage in Santa Clara, holding his seven-month old son Gunnar underneath a confetti storm. Before catching on in San Francisco, Mostert was rejected by six different NFL teams in two seasons. His transaction history has 22 entries. In five years, he signed 12 contracts and was claimed on waivers twice. He and his wife’s belongings are scattered between two storage units and her parent’s garage. They quickly learned not to travel with any furniture, and even though he is now on a three-year deal in San Francisco, they still rent an apartment that comes furnished, stocked with its own pots and pans and kitchen utensils. The goofy-stance surfer from New Smyrna Beach, shark bite capital of the world, is Super Bowl LIV’s ultimate underdog story. And he likely would not have gotten here without what he learned in his hometown.

***

There was always surfing in New Smyrna Beach, but there was also football: Mostert’s Pop Warner coach, Mike “Porkchop” Stokes, was like a father to him. Chop’s wife, DeAnne—or, as Raheem called her, “Momma Chop”—frequently gave him rides home from practice.

DeAnne remembers that young Raheem would often worry about her safety when she pulled into his neighborhood in her big pick-up truck. Dropping him off, DeAnne would always wait to make sure Raheem got inside and shut the door. She remembers him trying to convince her, though, to leave as soon as he got out of the truck.

“I’ll be OK, don’t worry about me,” he told her, saying he’d go inside, lock the door, and pull the sheets over the windows. “Chop told me that I have to do good in school or I can’t play football,” DeAnne says Raheem told her, “so I don’t pay attention to what anybody is doing outside my door.”

She says this was when she realized Raheem’s focus and dedication was rare. On the track and field page of his senior yearbook, Raheem is quoted saying, “‘Hard work pays off.’ That’s my favorite quote and I live by it.”

Mostert gashed the Packers in the NFC Championship game for 220 yards and 4 touchdowns on 29 carries. (John W. McDonough)

Mostert gashed the Packers in the NFC Championship game for 220 yards and 4 touchdowns on 29 carries. (John W. McDonough)

His hard work was good enough to get him recruited to Purdue as a kick returner and wide receiver. He set a school record as a freshman when he averaged 33.5 yards per kick return, but never became a big part of the offense. He switched to running back after his sophomore season and—even as he became a Big Ten track and field champion in the 100 and 200—struggled to convert his blazing speed into much yardage, or even carries.

Mostert went undrafted in 2015, and signed afterwards with the Eagles as a free agent. He led the NFL in rushing that preseason, but was the team’s final roster cut and signed to their practice squad. Mostert’s talent was obvious, but he lacked experience at running back.

A week later, Miami signed him off the Eagles practice squad and he played in their Week 2 game against Jacksonville. After he’d been with the Dolphins a little over a week, Mostert’s girlfriend Devon (now his wife), packed up her Toyota 4Runner with all their clothes and belongings, and their English bulldog Wilson, for the 20-hour drive south from her hometown near Cleveland.

Two weeks after arriving in Miami, Devon had finally hung up all their clothes, put out picture frames and arranged some houseplants. She even bought a lucky bamboo plant at a local grocery store, thinking only half-seriously that it might bring them good fortune. Of course, that backfired immediately. “I’m not kidding you,” she says. “I literally had just made our apartment feel like home and he was released.”

Within a couple hours, Mostert was headed to the airport for a flight to Baltimore, which promptly claimed him off waivers. “I’ll see you later, go do your thing,” Devon told him. “I got this, I’ll repack it up and drive back up north.”

So Devon packed up again, and made sure to bring along the lucky bamboo, even though it had yet to prove itself. She put the glass vase in her cup holder for the ride to Baltimore, careful not to tip it over.

The next two cuts, Baltimore and Cleveland, hurt the most. In Baltimore, Mostert played seven games and returned five kicks for 164 yards.

“I thought Raheem had a lot of potential,” says then-running backs coach Thomas Hammock, now the head coach at NIU. “He was on our kickoff team and kickoff return team, and we started working him on outside zone on offense, and I was thinking down the line he could be a really good player.”

On the December Friday before Week 13, Mostert was informed the team would be releasing him. He left the facility and went home, frustrated it was happening all over again. Later that morning, Hammock called him when he didn’t show up for their position group meeting. Hey, where are you? Why aren’t you here for this meeting?

Hammock had no idea the front office had decided to release the rookie running back. In one of the vagaries of NFL life, for reasons Hammock isn’t sure of, the team then reversed itself and called Mostert back in. He played in the game that Sunday, all the time knowing that he would likely be cut afterwards. Two days later, the Ravens officially dropped him.

“He was released basically twice by that team,” Devon says. “That one hurt because now you have to walk back into the facility after just being cut and put a face on like everything is OK.”

Mostert did not clear waivers in Baltimore, and was signed to division rival Cleveland’s active roster as their starting kick returner for the last three games of the season. This team felt different for Raheem and Devon, because Devon is from Chardon, Ohio, a town 30 miles east from Cleveland. They loved being near her family, who had once been Browns season ticket holders.

Mostert played in the first three preseason games of 2016 and then tweaked his hamstring. The Browns rested him in the final preseason game, telling him they wanted him healthy for Week 1. Raheem and Devon let themselves relax a bit. He’d made the team and everything felt like it was falling into place.

“That night, when I made the 53-man roster, I felt like, hey look, I finally found a home,” Mostert says. “A place where I can finally start getting into the groove of things and making my way.”

The next day, the Browns waived him. He was devastated, but he couldn’t tell Devon right away because it was the same day as her bridal shower. “Everything was lined up,” he says. “Make the roster that day. Then the next day, the bridal shower.”

Mostert called Devon’s dad, who was helping set up the festivities. He was so embarrassed to tell his father-in-law the news that he started off with an apology. Sorry for this news I’m about to give you, but I just got released. Devon’s dad was equally stunned and they both agreed to keep it secret from Devon and her mom so it wouldn’t ruin their day.

Devon and her girlfriends ate brunch, played games and crafted their own flower bouquets at Cleveland’s historic Glidden House, while Mostert sat alone at their apartment, sifting through the wreckage that was his NFL career. Dessert at the shower included a plate of sugar cookies decorated like #25 Mostert jerseys with orange and brown and white icing.

Two of Devon’s guests, Mara Shelton and Christiana Hughlett, had already heard the bad news from their husbands, Browns defensive tackle Danny Shelton and long snapper Charley Hughlett. They didn’t say anything to Devon.

“Yes,” Devon sighs, “It was just really sad. They were like, we just felt so bad because we would look up there and see the cookies and his number...”

The unfortunate cookies. (Kamron Khan Photography)

The unfortunate cookies. (Kamron Khan Photography)

Devon and her parents returned from the shower that night, arms loaded with bags of gifts, and Raheem confessed his news. “I felt like a big failure that I couldn’t stick with the Browns to finally make myself known,” he says.

After a long year of bouncing from team to team to team to team, he questioned if it was worth it anymore. He had a degree in business management degree from Purdue, maybe it was time to use it.

“I remember sitting there and asking, ‘Hey what do you guys see me doing?’” Mostert says. “The way my career has gone so far, I have been on five different teams in one year, my rookie year. For me, I felt like that was unheard of.”

Devon and her parents assured Raheem that, if this is what he wanted to do, they were with him 100 percent. “That conversation was so short,” Devon says. “He was like alright, on to the next, we’ll see what colors I’m wearing this week.”

The next color would be green (the Jets practice squad for a week) and then blue and orange (two games for the Bears and a broken pinky that ended his time there). Finally, San Francisco coach Chip Kelly, who had liked Mostert when he coached him as a rookie in Philadelphia, picked him up, putting him on the roster for the final regular season game of 2016.

***

Mostert at his 2017 wedding with his Pop Warner coach Mike "Porkchop" Stokes and his wife DeAnne. (Shea Christine Photography)

Mostert at his 2017 wedding with his Pop Warner coach Mike "Porkchop" Stokes and his wife DeAnne. (Shea Christine Photography)

When 49ers general manager John Lynch was hired in January 2017, he inherited Mostert from the previous regime. Lynch kept him because of his speed and elite talent on special teams and has watched the back slowly build momentum. In 2017, Mostert played in 11 games, returned five kickoffs, had eight special teams tackles and six carries for 30 yards. In 2018, he had six tackles and 34 rushing attempts for 261 yards and a touchdown in nine games before landing on IR with a broken arm.

But this season, Mostert stayed healthy and earned a meaningful role in Coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, totaling 137 carries and 14 catches for 952 yards and 10 touchdowns. Mostert finished the regular season second in the league in yards per carry (5.6), behind only Lamar Jackson.

For Devon, who still has her lucky bamboo—“We’re keeping it alive because it is good luck”—it was a joy to watch. “I have never been bitter about his journey believe it or not,” she says. “It is what it is and it is part of God’s plan for us. So we’re Ok with it. I wouldn’t say it wasn’t rough going through it, but we wouldn’t be here without all of those steps.”

Ask around the league about Mostert and you get different answers. One NFL executive downplayed his skillset, arguing that Shanahan’s zone scheme could turn any fast running back into a success story. Just look at what his dad, Mike Shanahan, accomplished with sixth-round pick Terrell Davis in Denver.

Of course, Terrell Davis, Hall of Fame class of 2017, might quibble with that characterization. And besides, Mostert’s track and field-quality speed is elite. When he breaks into the second level, he’s invincible. In the NFC title game, he made Packers safety Darnell Savage, another 4.3 40 guy, look silly.

In March, Mostert signed a three-year deal worth an average of $2.9 million per season, a contract that looks like a steal now. When asked about the possibility of reworking the contract this offseason, his agent, Brett Tessler says, “I’m sure that is a conversation we will be having later on down the line.” Tessler says after the NFC title game, several well-known brands reached out about potential endorsement deals.

Mostert’s surfing touchdown celebration has become his personal trademark and he’s so proud of his childhood spent on the ocean that he chose Ocean Conservancy as his cause for the NFL’s program My Cause My Cleats. In many ways, Mostert has kept New Smyrna Beach close to him this season.

In April, his Pop-Warner coach Chop was diagnosed with metastatic brain cancer. Mostert called nearly every night to check in, but the prognosis was dire. After an infection compromised his immune system, Chop died in June at age 53. Mostert couldn’t make it back for the funeral because Devon was about to give birth to their son, but found another way to pay tribute to the coach who supported him since he was seven years old. He took a permanent marker and wrote “CHOP” on the red 49ers shirt that he wears underneath his pads for every home game.

DeAnne says she finds meaning in the coincidence that her husband’s death preceded Raheem’s breakout season. “I really do,” she says. “I’m not going to say it’s because of him, but I think maybe Mike’s death was a little bit of a motivator. Raheem was very broken up about it. Football and surfing is an escape for him, and it was a kick in the butt to go for it and just do it.”

DeAnne volunteered alongside Chop for 20 years while he coached Pop Warner, but she hasn’t been able to bring herself to walk onto a football field since her husband died. Mostert sent her and her son Trevor tickets to the Super Bowl, though, and they plan to attend. She’ll be wearing a custom 49ers Mostert jersey, with Chop’s name stitched onto the sleeve. The jerseys were a gift from fellow Pop Warner volunteers, because everybody says Chop has been riding on Mostert’s shoulders this entire season.

“I’ll be that one that is boohooing all over the place,” DeAnne says. "Happy tears." 

With reporting by Greg Bishop.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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